(CNN) — Finally back on American soil after nearly 10 months in a Russian prison, WNBA star Brittney Griner is spending time at a medical facility in Texas before returning to her normal life.
The basketball star —who was released last Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia by convicted notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout — arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for a routine evaluation early Friday, and authorities have not specified how long he will be there.
“I understand it will be a few more days before she gets out,” Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, told CNN on Sunday. Richardson and his center work privately on behalf of the families of the hostages and detainees. He previously traveled to Russia to discuss Griner’s release, as well as that of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who remains in custody.
Griner’s release via prisoner swap took months of negotiation and marked the end of months of confinement after the basketball star was arrested on drug charges at a Russian airport in February and later sentenced to nine years in prison.
The Texas facility in which Griner is being held would be in stark contrast to the Russian penal colony where she was held prior to her release.
During his time there, Griner had to cut off his now-famous dreadlocks to make life easier during the Russian winter, Griner’s Russian lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told ESPN and confirmed to CNN.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked sewing uniforms, but the seven-foot Olympic gold medalist was too tall to sit at a workbench and her hands were too big to handle sewing, so she carried fabric all day. day, his lawyer said.
“We are now focused on ensuring that the well-being of Brittney and her family is a priority and that all available assistance can be provided in an appropriate manner,” said US State Department Principal Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel, at a press conference on Friday.
Richardson said it’s important to give ex-detainees like Griner space as they adjust to life after release.
“We have to give them a little bit of space, a little bit of time to readjust because they’ve had a horrible experience in these Russian prisons,” said Richardson, who served as the US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
“I’m Here To Take You Home”
On the day of his release, Griner got the feeling He was going home, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who led the mission to carry out the prisoner exchange in the United Arab Emirates, told CNN.
But it didn’t feel real until the moment she was able to board the plane and tell him that “on behalf of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home,” Carstens said.
Carstens described Griner as smart, compassionate, humble and patriotic, healthy and energetic during the trip.
“When she finally got on the plane back to the US, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot in the last 10 months. Here is your seat. Please feel free to release yourself. We’ll give you your space,’” Carstens recalled.
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I have been in prison for 10 months listening to Russian, I want to speak. But first of all, who are these guys? And she walked right past me and she walked up to each member of that team, looked them in the eye, shook their hands and asked for them and got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing,” Carstens said.
He described how Griner spent 12 hours of an 18-hour flight talking to him “about everything under the sun.”
Griner’s friend, WNBA player Angel McCoughtry, said she knows Griner will need time and space, but believes she will eventually return to the basketball court.
“We missed her last year. It wasn’t the same in the WNBA without her,” McCoughtry said. “We don’t start until May, so she gives him a couple of months to recover and get in shape and get back into the grind, smelling the American air again.”
“We all want to see her, but we are going to give her time and space to be evaluated medically, mentally, emotionally and physically,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Jorge Toledo, one of the “Citgo 6”, spoke to CNN on Saturday about how reintegration into society can take time and effort after prolonged captivity. Toledo was released in October, also as part of a prisoner exchange, after being detained during a 2017 business trip to Venezuela with other Citgo Corporation oil and gas executives.
Having spent five years in captivity, Toledo said he came home with sleep problems and other health problems, and found minor daily tasks like driving becoming sources of anxiety.
Toledo said it was part of a program in San Antonio that involved six days with a group of psychologists. He called the program “extremely important” to his reintegration and hopes Griner can tap into similar resources.
Whelan’s release fate unclear
While many celebrate Griner’s return, the possibility of a release for Paul Whelan remains unclear.
Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, is currently incarcerated in a Russian penal colony after being arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He, like Griner, had been declared unjustly detained by US officials.
Now that Griner is back in the US, Richardson said he is optimistic about Whelan’s release, noting that Russia previously offered a trade for Whelan.
The US tried to persuade Russia to swap both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but Russian officials would not budge on the matter, with Russia saying the Americans’ cases were handled differently depending on the charges they faced. each one of them.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” President Joe Biden said last week. “Unfortunately, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we still haven’t managed to secure Paul’s release, we’re not giving up. We never give up”.
Whelan said he was happy Griner was released, but told CNN: “I am very disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the fourth anniversary of my arrest approaches.”
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After nearly 10 months in prison in Russia, Brittney Griner is recovering at a military medical center in Texas.